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The Effect of good Sex on Our Brains

Sex! Sex! Sex! Having sex can flavor our nights, and days, with sweet pleasure and excitement, relieving stress and worry. And, of course, sex has been key to ensuring that the human race lives on. In this article, we ask, “How does sex impact what happens in the brain?” To Install Our Application Click HERE

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Sexual intercourse is known to impact the way in which the rest of our body functions.

Recent studies have shown that it can have an effect on how much we eat, and how well the heart functions.

As we have reported on Medical News Today, sex has been cited as an effective method of burning calories, with scientists noting that appetite is reduced in the aftermath.

Also, a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2016 found that women who have satisfying sex later in life might be better protected against the risk of high blood pressure.

Many of the effects of sex on the body are actually tied to the way in which this pastime influences brain activity and the release of hormones in the central nervous system.

Here, we explain what happens in the brain when we are sexually stimulated, and we look at how this activity can lead to changes in mood, metabolism, and the perception of pain.

Brain activity and sexual stimulation

For both men and women, sexual stimulation and satisfaction have been demonstrated to increase the activity of brain networks related to pain and emotional states, as well as to the reward system.

This led some researchers to liken sex to other stimulants from which we expect an instant “high,” such as drugs and alcohol.

The brain and penile stimulation

A 2005 study by researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands used positron emission tomography scans to monitor the cerebral blood flow of male participants while their genitals were being stimulated by their female partners.

The scans demonstrated that stimulating the erect penis increased blood flow in the posterior insula and the secondary somatosensory cortex in the right hemisphere of the brain, while decreasing it in the right amygdala.

The insula is a part of the brain that has been tied to processing emotions, as well as to sensations of pain and warmth. Similarly, the secondary somatosensory cortex is thought to play an important role in encoding sensations of pain.

As for the amygdala, it is known to be involved in the regulation of emotions, and dysregulations of its activity have been tied to the development of anxiety disorders.

An older study from the same university — which focused on brain regions that were activated at the time of ejaculation — found that there was an increase in blood flow to the cerebellum, which also plays a key role in the processing of emotions.

The researchers liken the activation of the cerebellum during ejaculation to the pleasure rush caused by other activities that stimulate the brain’s reward system.

"Our results correspond with reports of cerebellar activation during heroin rush, sexual arousal, listening to pleasurable music, and monetary reward."

The brain and the female orgasm

In a study of the female orgasm that was conducted last year, scientists from Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, monitored the brain activity of 10 female participants as they achieved the peak of their pleasure — either by self-stimulation or by being stimulated by their partners.

The regions that were “significantly activated” during orgasm, the team found, included part of the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, the insula, the cingulate gyrus, and the cerebellum.

These brain regions are variously involved in the processing of emotions and sensations of pain, as well as in the regulation of some metabolic processes and decision-making.

Another study previously covered on MNT suggested that the rhythmic and pleasurable stimulation associated with orgasm puts the brain in a trance-like state. Study author Adam Safron compares the effect of female orgasms on the brain to that induced by dancing or listening to music.

“Music and dance may be the only things that come close to sexual interaction in their power to entrain neural rhythms and produce sensory absorption and trance,” he writes.

“That is,” he adds, “the reasons we enjoy sexual experiences may overlap heavily with the reasons we enjoy musical experience, both in terms of proximate (i.e. neural entrainment and induction of trance-like states) and ultimate (i.e. mate choice and bonding) levels of causation.”

Sex and hormonal activity

So what does this all mean? In essence, it means that sex can impact our mood — normally for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

couple kissing in bed

Having sex has repeatedly been associated with improved moods and psychological, as well as physiological, relaxation.

The reason behind why we may feel that stressimpacts us less after a session between the sheets is due to a brain region called the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus dictates the release of a hormone called oxytocin.

Higher levels of oxytocin can make us feel more relaxed, as studies have noted that it can offset the effects of cortisol, the hormone linked with an increased state of stress.

Not only does oxytocin make us calmer, but it also dampens our sense of pain. A study from 2013 found that this hormone could relieve headaches in individuals living with them as a chronic condition.

Another study from 2013 suggested that a different set of hormones that are released during sexual intercourse — called endorphins — can also relieve the pain associated with cluster headaches.

Can sex also make us feel down?

The answer to that, unfortunately, is “yes.” While s3x is generally hailed as a great natural remedy for the blues, a small segment of the population actually report an instant down rather than an instant high after engaging in this activity.

This condition is known as “postcoital dysphoria,” and its causes remain largely unknown. One study conducted in 2010 interviewed 222 female university students to better understand its effects.

Of these participants, 32.9 percent said that they had experienced negative moods after sex.

The team noted that a lifelong prevalence of this condition could be down to past traumatic events. In most cases, however, its causes remained unclear and a biological predisposition could not be eliminated.

“This draws attention to the unique nature of [postcoital dysphoria], where the melancholy is limited only to the period following sexual intercourse and the individual cannot explain why the dysphoria occurs,” the authors write.

Sex may lead to better sleep

Studies have shown that sexual intercourse can also improve sleep. After an orgasm, the body also releases higher levels of a hormone called prolactin, which is known to play a key role in sleep.

Researchers from Central Queensland University in Australia also hypothesized that the release of oxytocin during sex may act as a sedative, leading to a better night’s sleep.

In the case of men, ejaculation has been found to reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region known to benefit particularly from a good night’s sleep.

In sleep, the prefrontal cortex exhibits the slowest brainwave activity compared with other brain regions, which supports the proper execution of cognitive functions during the daytime.

Researchers say that sex may lead to better cognitive functioning in older age, protecting people from memory loss and other cognitive impairments. Studies have shown that “older men who are sexually active […] have increased levels of general cognitive function.”

For women, being sexually active later in life appears to sustain memory recall, specifically. These effects may be due to the action of hormones such as testosterone and oxytocin, which are influenced by intercourse.

So, next time you’re about to slip between the sheets with that special someone, just know that this moment of passion will spark a whole neural firework show, releasing a special hormonal cocktail that will, at its best, charge a whole set of biological batteries.

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Common causes of hiccups.

Hiccups Quick Overview

Hiccups are brief and involuntary contractions of the diaphragm muscle.

Irritation of the nerves that extend from the neck to the chest can cause hiccups. Many conditions can cause this irritation and result in hiccups, including eating too fast and swallowing air, chewing gum, smoking, eating or drinking too much, strokes, brain tumors, damage to the vagus or phrenic nerve, some medications, noxious fumes, anxiety and stress, and in babies, hiccups may be associated with crying, coughing, or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD).

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Hiccups aren’t a worry normally, but if they become frequent, chronic, and persistent (lasting more than 3 hours), if they affect sleeping patterns, interfere with eating, cause reflux of food or vomiting, occur with severe abdominal pain, fever, shortness of breath, spitting up blood, or feeling as if the throat is going to close up, see a medical personnel.

There are many home solutions to heal hiccups, including holding your breath, drinking a glass of water quickly, having someone frighten or surprise you, using smelling salts, pulling hard on your tongue, and others.

For severe or chronic hiccups that are not cured with home treatment, medical treatments include medications, anesthesia to block the phrenic nerve, and surgical implantation of an electronic stimulator to the vagus nerve. Surgery to disable the phrenic nerve is a treatment of last resort.

The prognosis for hiccups is good. For most people, hiccups usually stop by themselves with no lingering effects. If hiccups continue, they may cause social embarrassment and distress, and chronic hiccups may result in speech, eating, and sleeping disorders.

What Are Hiccups?

Hiccups are sudden, involuntary contractions of the diaphragm muscle. As the muscle contracts repeatedly, the opening between the vocal cords snaps shut to check the inflow of air and makes the hiccup sound. Irritation of the nerves that extend from the neck to the chest can cause hiccups.

Although associated with a variety of ailments (some can be serious such as pneumonia or when harmful substances build up in the blood for example from kidney failure), hiccups are not serious and have no clear reason for occurring. Rarely, their presence causes health problems such as speech changes or interference with eating and sleeping.

What Causes Hiccups?

Many conditions are associated with hiccups, but none has been shown to be the cause of hiccups.

  • If a person eats too fast, he or she can swallow air along with food and end up with the hiccups.
  • Smoking or chewing gum also can cause a person to swallow air and get hiccups.
  • Any other practices that might irritate the diaphragm such as eating too much (especially fatty foods) or drinking too much (alcohol or carbonated drinks) can make a person prone to having hiccups.
  • In these instances, the stomach, which sits underneath and adjacent to the diaphragm, is distended or stretched. As they occur in relation to eating and drinking, hiccups are sometimes thought to be a reflex to protect a person from choking.
  • Strokes or brain tumors involving the brain stem, and some chronic medical disorders (such as renal failure) are reported to cause hiccups; trauma to the brain, meningitis, and encephalitis also may cause hiccups.
  • Damage to the vagus or phrenic nerve may cause hiccups to last a long time.
  • Problems with the liver, including swelling, infection, or masses can cause irritation of the diaphragm, which can cause hiccups.
  • Some medications that can cause acid reflux may also have hiccups as a side effect. Most benzodiazepines, including diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan) can cause hiccups. In addition, medications such levodopa (Larodopa), nicotine, and ondansetron (Zofran) can cause hiccups. Other medications that can cause hiccups include levodopa, methyldopa (Aldomet), nicotine, ondansetron (Zofran), barbiturates, opioid pain relievers, corticosteroids, anesthesia, or chemotherapy medications.
  • Noxious fumes can also trigger hiccup symptoms.
  • A baby may hiccup after crying or coughing. This is common in babies in the first year. In some instances, babies with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) could be more prone to hiccups.
  • Anxiety and stress can induce both short and long-term hiccups

What Are Symptoms of Hiccups?

Hiccups can be described as brief, irritable spasms of the diaphragm that can occur for a few seconds or minutes. They infrequently last longer in normal individuals without any underlying medical problem.

Which Types of Doctor Treats Hiccups?

Because hiccups are rarely a medical emergency, you will likely first consult your family practitioner or internist. Children may see their pediatrician.

In the case of an emergency as described above you may see an emergency medicine specialist in a hospital’s emergency department.

Other specialists who may be involved in treating hiccups include an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist, or ENT), a gastroenterologist (a specialist in the digestive tract), a neurologist (a specialist in the brain and nervous system), a pulmonologist (a lung specialist), or a psychologist.

When Should a Person Seek Medical Care for Hiccups?

A person should see a doctor if the hiccups become chronic and persistent (if they last more than 3 hours), or if they affect sleeping patterns, interfere with eating, or cause reflux of food or vomiting.

Hiccups is rarely a medical emergency. If hiccups last for more than 3 hours, occur with severe abdominal pain, fever, shortness of breath, vomiting, spitting up blood, or feeling as if the throat is going to close up, the person should seek medical attention.

How Is the Cause of Hiccups Diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on physical evaluation. Laboratory testing is rarely necessary unless the hiccups are suspected to be a symptom of an associated medical condition. The tests to diagnose the associated medical condition will be done and tests will vary according to the associated condition.

How Do I Get Rid of the Hiccups?

There are a variety of home remedies to resolve hiccups, which include holding your breath to drinking a glass of water quickly. The common thread to most of these remedies is that carbon dioxide builds up in the blood or stimulating the vagus nerve will stop hiccups. Medical care is rarely needed to cure hiccups. If a person has hiccups for more than two days, they should seek medical care.

What Home Remedies Get Rid of the Hiccups?

Numerous home remedies to stop hiccups exist. The reason these remedies are thought to work is that carbon dioxide build-up in the blood will stop hiccups, which is what happens when a person holds their breath. Stimulation of the vagus nerve (the nerve that runs from the brain to the stomach) is stimulated, hiccups can also be alleviated (this is what is happening when a person drinks water or pulls on their tongue).

Try these methods at home to get rid of the hiccups:

  • Hold your breath.
  • Drink a glass of water quickly.
  • Have someone frighten you (or better, surprise) the person
  • Use smelling salts.
  • Have the person pull hard on their tongue.
  • Place one-half teaspoon of dry sugar on the back of the tongue. (Repeat this process 3 times at 2-minute intervals, if necessary use corn syrup, not sugar, in young children.)

There are many other suggestions to get rid of the hiccups such as “name 10 famous bald men;” “stick a finger in the ear;” tickling the palate with a swab; or swallowing a tablespoon full of honey (this distracts the person with the hiccups and may help the diaphragm relax). However, a person should only try those methods they are comfortable, and be aware that some methods are not suitable for infants (honey, sugar methods), elderly with swallowing problems, and others with health problems. Call your doctor for further information if individuals have any questions about home remedies or if they fail to stop the hiccups.

What Is the Medical Treatment for Hiccups?

Treatment for getting rid of the hiccups depends on how severe the hiccups are.

  • For the common hiccups that will usually stop on their own, home remedies are generally sufficient to cure the symptoms.
  • For more severe, persistent hiccups (usually lasting over to 2 days), the doctor may try medications to manage the patient’s hiccups. Chlorpromazine (Thorazine) is usually the first prescription medication tried for hiccups, although drugs such as baclofen (Lioresal) and medications for convulsions such as phenytoin (Dilantin) have also been successful.
  • Anesthesia to block the phrenic nerve and surgical implantation of an electronic stimulator to the vagus nerve has been effective. Surgery to disable the phrenic nerve (the nerve that controls the diaphragm) is often the treatment of last resort.

What Is the Outlook for a Person Who Has the Hiccups?

In healthy people, hiccups usually go away by themselves with no serious effects after that. If hiccups continue, however, they may cause social embarrassment and distress, and if prolonged may result in speech, eating, and sleeping disorders.

 

The cure of a hangover

A hangover is a collection of signs and symptoms linked to a recent bout of heavy drinking. A person with a hangover typically experiences a headache, feels sick, dizzy, sleepy, confused, and thirsty.

Hangovers can occur at any time of day, but are usually more common in the morning directly after a night of heavy drinking.

As well as physical symptoms, the person may experience elevated levels of anxiety, regret, shame, embarrassment, and depression. The severity of a hangover is closely linked to how much alcohol was consumed, and whether the sufferer had enough sleep; the less sleep, the worse the hangover.

It is impossible really to say how much alcohol can be safely consumed to avoid a hangover – it depends on the individual and other factors, such as how tired they were before they began drinking, whether they were already dehydrated before the drinking began, whether they drank plenty of water during their drinking session, and how much sleep they got afterward.

Fast facts on hangovers:

  • Hangovers are caused by overconsumption of alcohol.
  • Symptoms include headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, and fatigue.
  • The best method of prevention is to drink alcohol in moderation, or avoid it altogether.
  • The most effective cures are rest, rehydration, and sleep.

Cure

woman drinking whiskey

Unfortunately not. Symptoms can be alleviated by drinking water, replacing electrolytes in the body through food, and resting. In the vast majority of cases, hangovers go away after about 24 hours. Responsible drinking can help avoid hangovers.

There is no “treatment” for a hangover – the best way to avoid one is either not to drink, or to drink sensibly and within the recommended limits. Our article what is the best hangover cure? features some of the common myths and suggests some methods of prevention.

A hangover has to run its course, and that can be best done with rest, drinking plenty of water, perhaps some painkillers, and simply waiting.

Do not go for a “hair of the dog” – an alcoholic drink to get rid of a hangover. This is a myth, and will likely just prolong hangover symptoms.

The following tips may help:

Drink: Sip water throughout the day. Water is the best fluid.

Eating: Go for bland foods, such as crackers or bread, which may raise blood sugar and are easy on the stomach. Fructose-containing foods might help metabolize (break down and get rid of) the alcohol more rapidly.

Pain: Some people may take a painkiller. Be aware that certain painkillers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, paracetamol) attack the liver in high concentrations, while aspirin might not be ideal for a very delicate stomach. If you are not sure what to choose, ask a qualified pharmacist.

Rest: Sleep may help speed up recovery. Have some water next to the bed.

In short, you should not drink more than you know your body can handle.

Symptoms

woman with bloodshot eye

Bloodshot eyes are one of the most visible symptoms of a hangover.

The signs and symptoms of a hangover generally start to occur when the blood alcohol drops considerably.

Typically, this happens in the morning after a night of high alcohol consumption, and may include:

  • accelerated heartbeat
  • anxiety
  • bloodshot eyes
  • body and muscle aches
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • halitosis (bad breath)
  • headache
  • hypersalivation
  • flatulence
  • lethargy, tiredness, fatigue, listlessness
  • nausea
  • photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • problems focusing or concentrating
  • sensitivity to loud sounds
  • depression (dysphoria)
  • irritability
  • moodiness
  • stomachache
  • thirst
  • trembling or shakiness, erratic motor functions
  • vomiting

If the individual has the following more severe signs and symptoms when or after drinking, they may have alcohol poisoning. This is a medical emergency. Seek medical help as soon as possible if any of the following occur:

  • breathing loses its regular rhythm
  • breathing slows down to less than eight inhalations per minute
  • confusion or stupor – the drinker is in a daze
  • fits
  • the body temperature drops
  • passing out
  • the skin becomes pale, or takes on a blue tinge
  • vomiting continues and does not stop

The symptoms vary in severity, and some people may experience some more strongly than others.

Causes

A hangover is a consequence of having consumed too much alcohol, which causes several adverse effects:

Urination: Alcohol makes a person urinate more, which raises the chances of dehydration. Dehydration can give the individual that sensation of thirst and lightheadedness.

Immune system response: Alcohol may trigger an inflammatory response from the immune system. This can affect appetite, concentration, and memory.

Stomach irritation: Alcohol consumption raises the production of stomach acids; it also slows down the rate at which the stomach empties itself – this combination can lead to nausea, vomiting, or stomachache.

Drop in blood sugar: Some people’s blood sugar levels can fall steeply when they consume alcohol, resulting in shakiness, moodiness, tiredness, general weakness, and even seizures in some cases.

Dilation of blood vessels: Alcohol consumption can cause the blood vessels to dilate, which can cause headaches.

Sleep quality: Although sleeping when drunk is common, the quality of that sleep will often be poor. The individual may wake up tired and still sleepy.

Congeners: These are substances that are produced during fermentation and are responsible for most of the taste and aroma in distilled drinks (whisky or gin, for example). They are known to contribute to symptoms of a hangover. Examples of congeners include esters and aldehydes.

Toxic byproducts: Alcohol metabolism produces toxic substances that can cause many of the symptoms of hangovers.

The body processes alcohol at a certain rate. Consuming more alcohol before the body has had time to recover means the likelihood of a hangover increases.

Prevention

The easiest way to prevent a hangover is to moderate or avoid alcohol intake.

Drinking plenty of water alongside alcoholic beverages or consuming a late-night meal after a session of heavy drinking may also temper the hangover that may occur the following morning.

What to know about alcohol poisoning

A person has alcohol poisoning if they have consumed a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short period. Their blood alcohol level is so high it is considered toxic (poisonous).

The person can become extremely confused, unresponsive, disoriented, have shallow breathing, and can even pass out or go into a coma.

Alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening and usually requires urgent medical treatment.

Binge drinking is a common cause of alcohol poisoning. However, it can also occur if somebody intentionally or unintentionally drinks alcohol-containing household products (much less common).

Fast facts on alcohol poisoning

  • Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition.
  • Even when someone stops drinking, there is risk of alcohol poisoning for some time afterward.
  • Symptoms include confusion, abnormal breathing, and vomiting.
  • In severe cases, alcohol poisoning is life-threatening.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

A man passed out in the street from alcohol consumption.

Alcohol poisoning can cause drinkers to lose consciousness when their blood alcohol concentration reaches a certain level.

Even when someone stops drinking, blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise for 30-40 minutes, resulting in worsening symptoms.

The following signs and symptoms may indicate a progression from being drunk to alcohol poisoning:

  • confusion
  • hypothermia (the person’s body temperature drops)
  • pale skin, sometimes it may take on a bluish tinge
  • the individual is unresponsive but conscious (stupor)
  • the individual passes out
  • abnormal breathing – sometimes up to 10 seconds between breaths
  • very slow breathing
  • vomiting – potential to choke on vomit when confused

In serious cases:

  • breathing might stop completely
  • a heart attack may occur
  • there is a risk of choking on their own vomit – vomit might be inhaled into the lungs causing a serious infection
  • hypothermia
  • if the individual loses too much fluid (severe dehydration), there is a risk of brain damage
  • if blood glucose levels drop (hypoglycemia), they might develop seizures

If the alcohol poisoning is extreme, the patient can go into a coma and potentially die.

This article focuses on the medical aspects of alcohol poisoning, rather than other environmental dangers of alcohol abuse such as getting into fights, losing possessions, or having problems with the law.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a significant medical condition. It requires immediate treatment if suspected.

If a person is thought to have alcohol poisoning, an ambulance should be called. Before the ambulance arrives, the following assistance should be given:

  • try to keep the individual awake
  • try to keep them in a sitting position, not lying down – if they do lie down, turn their head to the side
  • if they can take it, give them water
  • if the person is unconscious, put them in the recovery position and check they are breathing
  • do not give them coffee; caffeine will worsen the dehydration
  • do not lie them on their back
  • do not give them any more alcohol to drink
  • do not make them walk

In the hospital, depending on the patient’s BAC level and severity of signs and symptoms, staff may just monitor them until their alcohol levels gradually drop. However, depending on the severity of symptoms, other treatments may include:

  • a tube inserted into their windpipe to help with breathing
  • an intravenous drip to manage hydration, blood glucose, and vitamin levels
  • a urinary catheter if they become incontinent
  • in some cases, the patient’s stomach may be pumped – fluids are flushed through a tube that goes down their mouth or nose

If the person – who may sometimes be a child – has unintentionally drunk methanol or isopropyl alcohol and has alcohol poisoning they may need dialysis to speed up the removal of toxins from their system.

What causes alcohol poisoning?

A group of young people drinking together

College drinkers are statistically the most at risk of alcohol poisoning.

When somebody consumes an alcoholic drink, their liver has to filter out the alcohol, a toxin, from their blood.

We absorb alcohol much more quickly than food – alcohol gets to our bloodstream much faster.

However, the liver can only process a limited amount of alcohol; approximately one standard drink of alcohol every hour.

If a person drinks two in 1 hour, there will be an extra drink’s worth of alcohol in the bloodstream. If during the next hour, the person consumes another two drinks, they will have two standard drink’s worth of alcohol floating around in their bloodstream 2 hours after the drinking session.

The faster someone drinks, the higher the BAC becomes. Rapid drinking can bring BAC so high that mental and physical functions are negatively affected. If BAC is high enough, physical functions such as breathing and the gag reflex (that prevents people from choking) can be affected.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are “2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the United States each year – an average of six alcohol poisoning deaths every day.”

Those at highest risk of suffering from alcohol poisoning are college students, chronic alcoholics, and those taking medications that clash with alcohol.

Recovery from alcohol poisoning

During recovery from alcohol posioning, the individual may experience:

  • headache
  • somach cramps
  • nausea
  • anxiety
  • tremors

It is important to keep hydrated and avoid drinking any alcohol.

What effects does alcohol have on health?

Alcohol is the intoxicating ingredient that is present in wine, beer, and spirits. It is a depressant, which means that when it reaches the brain, it slows down the body’s systems.

It can also be difficult for the body to process, putting extra pressure on the liver, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and other functions.

Alcohol is a legal recreational substance for adults and one of the most commonly used drugs in the United States. People consume alcohol to socialize, to relax, and to celebrate.

It is commonly misused among individuals of all ages, resulting in significant health, legal, and socio-economic damage.

In 2017, around half of all Americans aged over 18 years had consumed alcohol in the last month. Just over 9 percent of those aged 12 to 17 years had done so.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.1 million people aged 18 years and over in the U.S. had alcohol use disorder (AUD), or 6.2 percent of this age group.

Fast facts about alcohol

  • Pure alcohol is a colorless, odorless, and flammable liquid.
  • Fruits and grains are the foods most commonly used foods to make alcohol.
  • Alcohol is the number one abused drug by minors in the U.S.
  • The liver can only oxidize about one drink per hour.
  • Alcohol is known to be harmful to developing brains, from before birth to adolescence.
  • No amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe during pregnancy.
  • Combined with other medications, whether over-the-counter (OTC) or prescribed, alcohol’s effects can be deadly.

Short-term effects

moderate drinking

One to two drinks can make you feel relaxed.

Within minutes of consuming alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream by blood vessels in the stomach lining and small intestine.

It then travels to the brain, where it quickly produces its effects.

The short-term effects of alcohol depend on:

  • how much is consumed
  • how quickly
  • the weight, sex, and body fat percentage of the individual
  • whether or not they have eaten

Drinking with a meal slows the rate of absorption, resulting in fewer side effects and less intoxication.

Signs of intoxication

At first, the person may feel relaxed, uninhibited, or giddy. As they consume more alcohol, intoxication may result.

Other signs of intoxication include:

  • slurred speech
  • clumsiness and unsteady gait
  • drowsiness
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • distortion of senses and perception
  • loss of consciousness
  • lapses in memory

How much alcohol?

One drink is the equivalent of:

  • 12 ounces of beer that is around 5 percent alcohol, depending on the type
  • 5 ounces of wine that is around 12 percent alcohol
  • 1.5-ounces of spirits, or a “shot,” at about 40 percent alcohol
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor, at around 7 percent alcohol

In other words, these servings all contain the same amount of alcohol: 0.6 ounces.

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. It is expressed as the weight of ethanol in grams per 100 milliliter (ml) of blood.

The University of West Virginia suggests that a person may experience the following, depending on individual factors:

Number of drinks BAC Effect
1-2 Up to 0.05 The person feels relaxed, less inhibited, with a slower reaction time and reduced alertness.
3-4 0.05 to 0.10 Fine motor skills, reaction time, and judgment are reduced.
5-7 0.10-0.15 Vision, perception, reaction times, and judgment are affected; the person may become argumentative or emotionally irrational.
8-10 0.15-0.30 The person may stagger, speech become slurred, and vision blurred. Motor skills are severely affected, and the person may vomit or feel nauseated.
Over 10 0.30 and above The person may lose consciousness or be conscious but unaware of what is happening. Breathing rate is slow.

The body absorbs alcohol relatively quickly, but it takes longer to get the alcohol out of the body. The liver needs about 1 hour to process one drink. Consuming several drinks in a short time causes the alcohol builds up in the body. This puts the body’s systems under pressure. It can lead to illness and, in severe cases, death.

Alcohol toxicity

After 8 to 9 drinks, vision becomes blurred and the person is likely to feel nauseated.

It also increases the risk of blackouts, especially on an empty stomach. During this time, a person may do things that they do not remember later.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking within 2 hours:

  • Five or more drinks for a man
  • Four or more drinks for a woman

This is because women and men metabolize alcohol differently.

Intoxication impairs judgment and can result in inappropriate and illegal behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, disorderly conduct, driving while intoxicated and acts of violence.

In 2014, 31 percent of all driving fatalities in the U.S. were alcohol-related.

Alcohol toxicity

When the amount of alcohol in the blood exceeds a certain level, this can lead to alcohol toxicity, or poisoning. This is a dangerous condition.

Since alcohol is a depressant, it can slow the breathing, leading to a lack of oxygen to the brain.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • slow breathing
  • blue tint to the skin
  • low body temperature
  • loss of consciousness
  • coma

If blood alcohol concentration is higher than 0.4, there is a 50 percent chance of death.

Alcohol intolerance

Some people will feel unwell immediately after drinking alcohol. They may have an intolerance, insensitivity, or allergy to alcohol or another ingredient in a drink.

Symptoms include:

  • facial flushing
  • nausea and vomiting
  • worsening of asthma
  • diarrhea
  • low blood pressure

Alcohol intolerance can be a sign of Hodgkin lymphoma. Anyone who suddenly develops an intolerance may be advised to see a doctor, in case there is an underlying condition.

Combining alcohol with other depressant-type medications—whether over-the-counter preparations, prescription, or recreational drugs—can have serious effects on the respiratory and central nervous systems.

It is especially dangerous to mix alcohol with GHB, rohypnol, ketamine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.

Hangover

After drinking too much in an evening, a person may continue to feel the effects of the alcohol on waking up, with what is commonly called a “hangover.”

This is because alcohol is toxic to the body, and the body is still working to get rid of the toxin.

Many of the symptoms are caused by dehydration, but some chemicals in alcoholic drinks can cause a reaction in the blood vessels and the brain that make symptoms worse.

Symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • racing heart
  • dry mouth and eyes
  • difficulty concentrating
  • restlessness

Around 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach. Most of the remaining 80 percent is absorbed through the small intestine. Around 5 percent of the alcohol consumed leaves through the lungs, kidneys and the skin. The liver removes the rest.

Since the liver can only process the equivalent of one drink at a time, the body may remain saturated with the alcohol that has not yet left the body.

It can take from 2 to 3 hours for the body to metabolize alcohol from one to two drinks, and up to 24 hours to process the alcohol from eight to ten drinks.

A hangover can last up to 24 hours. Doctors advise not drinking again within 48 hours of a heavy drinking session, to allow the body to recover.

Long-term effects

Alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions including dependence and addiction, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and unintentional injuries such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns, assaults, and drowning.

Around 88,000 people in the U.S die from alcohol-related causes every year. This makes it the third leading preventable cause of death.

Long-term alcohol misuse is associated with the following health problems:

alcohol and depression

Drinking too much too often can lead to depression.

  • liver disease
  • pancreatitis
  • cardiomyopathy, or damage to the heart muscle
  • other cardiovascular problems
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • stomach ulcers
  • cancer
  • immune system dysfunction
  • osteoporosis
  • brain and nerve damage
  • vitamin deficiencies
  • mental health problems such as anxiety and depression

Alcohol affects every body system, so it can cause health problems throughout the body.

Research shows that women who drink more alcohol than is recommended on a regular basis tend to develop liver disease, cardiomyopathy and nerve damage after fewer years than men who do the same.

Of major concern is the number of young people who consume alcohol. Research suggests that 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD, and the condition affects some 623,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 years.

Alcohol can have a serious effect on the developing brain, from fetal development to the end of adolescence. If a woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy, the child may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). In 2015, this was believed to affect between 2 and 7 newborns in every 1,000.

Symptoms can be similar to those of ADHD.

Addiction and withdrawal

If a person consumes large amounts of alcohol regularly, their tolerance can increase, and the body requires more alcohol to achieve the desired effect.

As the body adapts to the presence of the drug, dependency and addiction can result. If consumption stops suddenly, the person may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol addiction is a disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, and continued use despite a negative impact on health, interpersonal relationships, and ability to work. If the person stops drinking, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of withdrawal generally occur between 4 and 72 hours after the last drink or after reducing intake. They peak at about 48 hours and may last up to 5 days.

They may include:

  • mild tremors
  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • depressed mood

Many people will take a drink to stop the discomfort of withdrawal.

In more severe cases, the person may experience Delirium tremens, or “the DTs.”

This condition involves:

  • body tremors (shaking)
  • hallucinations or changes in mental status
  • confusion
  • extreme sleepiness
  • seizures that can result in death

Delirium tremens is a medical emergency. Anyone with an alcohol dependency disorder who desires to stop drinking should seek professional medical care or a treatment center specializing in safe alcohol detoxification.

Treatment for alcohol use disorder

The treatment of alcohol dependency involves a variety of interventions, and it requires medical, social, and family support.

Strategies include:

  • individual and group counseling
  • medication, such as disulfiram (Antabuse), naltrexone and acamprosate (Campral)
  • participation in support networks such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • A detoxification program in a hospital or medical facility is another option for those who need a higher level of care.

Contacts for help

If anyone who is concerned about their own or a loved one’s drinking habits, they can call or contact the following organizations for confidential help:

  • Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 800-527-5344
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.: 800-622-2255
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Making screening part of regular health visits can help with making an early diagnosis.

Thirst: Our brains tell us when to stop drinking

When the water content of our blood drops, neurons in the brain tell us that we are thirsty. But how do we know when enough is enough?
Water

Water is essential to life. When we get deydrated, it can have serious consequences.

The water content in our body is tightly regulated. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, delirium, and unconsciousness. Drinking fluids restores this balance or homeostasis.

But it takes time for water to travel from our mouths through the body. We stop drinking a long time before this happens.

If we kept drinking during this delay, we would be at serious risk of water intoxication, or water poisoning, which is potentially deadly.

Scientists are beginning to unravel the sophisticated mechanisms that stop us from drinking too much water, and the answer lies in the brain.

What controls thirst?

The brain’s thirst control circuit is a small region in the forebrain called the lamina terminalis (LT).

Once the LT network is activated, we become thirsty. A study published last week in the journal Science demonstrated that thirst creates an uncomfortable feeling in mice, which is alleviated by drinking.

There is one other thing that triggers thirst: eating. As soon as we start to eat, our thirst is stimulated. This is known as prandial thirst.

Water is necessary for us to digest the food that we eat. It also stops electrolytes in food from disturbing homeostasis by balancing out the fluid levels.

Why do we stop drinking?

Zachary A. Knight, Ph.D. – from the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco – and his team reported in the journal Nature that neurons in the subfornical organ (SFO), which forms part of the LT, might be at the heart of things.

The authors explain that “much normal drinking behavior is anticipatory in nature, meaning that the brain predicts impending changes in fluid balance and adjusts behavior pre-emptively.”

For their study, the researchers used mice and restricted their access to water overnight. “When water was made available,” the authors write, “mice drank avidly and, surprisingly, [SFO] neurons were inhibited within 1 min.”

This drop in neuronal signaling happened much faster than the water was able to reach the blood.

“Drinking resets thirst-promoting SFO neurons in a way that anticipates the future restoration of homeostasis,” they add. This means that our brain anticipates how much water we need to drink to restore homeostasis.

Signals from the mouth to the brain

What is not yet clear is how the brain knows when we are drinking fluids. A recent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience pointed the finger at receptors in our mouth.

The team – led by Yuki Oka, Ph.D., who is from the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena – showed that water changes the acid balance in the saliva, which activates acid-taste receptors.

So, what is the best way of quenching thirst? A study by Sanne Boesveldt, Ph.D. – from the Division of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands – and her team, which will be published in the October edition of the journal Physiology & Behavior, set out to answer this question.

The authors explain that cold drinks are already known to be more thirst quenching, as are sour, flavored, and carbonated drinks.

In their study, the team found that cold, flavored popsicles were significantly more thirst quenching than cold liquids. The most effective flavor was lemon.

So, while the days may be getting colder as fall gets underway in the Northern hemisphere, a lemon popsicle might still be a good option the next time thirst calls.

How do dreams affect brain disorders?

Research presented at the latest Canadian Neuroscience Meeting connects fascinating insights into the science of dreams with the risk of developing neurological disorders.

[woman dreaming]

Scientists examine what goes on inside our brains when we dream and find surprising connections with neurodegenerative disorders.

Research presented at the 2017 annual gathering of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience, held in Montreal, investigates what goes on inside our brains when we dream. Surprisingly, the research also suggests that dream dysfunctions may predict the development of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia.

The research was conducted by Dr. John Peever and his team at the University of Toronto in Canada in 2015.

Dr. Peever and colleagues have previously studied how dreams occur and discovered the brain cells that are responsible for reaching the dream state: the so-called REM-active neurons.

How do we dream?

Since the 1960s, scientists have known that dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and that the brainstem is a key brain region responsible for controlling dreams.

The brainstem is located at the base of the brain, and it communicates with the hypothalamus to transition from wakefulness to sleep, and vice versa. A chain reaction started by REM-active “SubC” neurons ultimately releases the GABA neurotransmitter, which, in turn, reduces the level of arousal in the hypothalamus and the brainstem. SubC neurons take their name from the brain area in which they are found: the subcoeruleus nucleus.

These brain cells that produce GABA, or GABAergic neurons, control the timing of REM sleep and its features, such as muscle paralysis. As Dr. Peever explains, “When we switch on these cells, it causes a rapid transition into REM sleep.” The brainstem sends signals to relax muscles and limbs so that we do not do in real life what we dream about while asleep.

Knowing all of this, Dr. Peever and colleagues set out to examine dreaming disorders such as cataplexy, narcolepsy, and REM sleep behavior disorder.

People with narcolepsy do not just fall asleep instantly, but they also experience cataplexy, which is the sudden loss of muscle tone while they are awake.

REM sleep disorders linked to neurodegenerative conditions

While examining the breakdowns in the brain circuits that cause these disorders, the team made an interesting discovery.

They found that REM sleep disorders are linked to several neurodegenerative diseases that tend to occur in old age. “This link suggests that neurodegenerative processes initially target the circuits controlling REM sleep and specifically SubC neurons,” write Dr. Peever and colleagues in their 2015 paper.

We observed that more than 80 percent of people who suffer from REM sleep disorder eventually develop synucleinopathies, such as Parkinson’s disease, and Lewy body dementia. Our research suggests sleep disorders may be an early warning sign for diseases that may appear some 15 years later in life.”

Dr. John Peever

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that approximately 50,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease every year, and around half a million people live with the disease. Lewy body dementia affects another 1 million U.S. adults.

Both Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia are characterized by a buildup of a neuronal protein called alpha-synuclein inside the neurons.

In the future, Dr. Peever hopes that his research will pave the way for neuroprotective therapies that would prevent against the development of such neurodegenerative disorders.

“Much like we see in people prone to cancer, diagnosing REM disorders may allow us to provide individuals with preventative actions to keep them healthy long before they develop these more serious neurological conditions,” Dr. Peever says.

Action video games decrease gray matter, study finds

A new study suggests that playing action video games can be detrimental to the brain, reducing the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus. Specialists should exert caution in advising video gameplay to improve cognition, the study authors urge.
girl playing action video game

Researchers find that playing action video games can lead to hippocampal atrophy.

The impact of video games on our health and well-being has often been studied and discussed, and it is still a very controversial topic. According to the Entertainment Software Association, at least one person in 63 percent of households across the United States plays video games for at least 3 hours per week, making gaming one of the most popular leisure activities.

A new study led by researchers from the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal, and from the Douglas Institute in Québec, both in Canada, has now found that action video games, specifically, have a direct negative effect on the brain.

Lead study author Dr. Gregory West, an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal, has published the team’s findings in the current issue of Molecular Psychiatry.

Action games’ effect on brain

The current study stems from two considerations. First, the researchers noted that action video games – which are defined as “first- and third-person shooting games” – are sometimes recommended by specialists to increase the visual attention of children and adults.

Secondly, according to previous research conducted by Dr. West, action video game players employ a particular kind of navigational strategy called “response learning,” which is based on forming a navigational “habit” and relying on it.

Response learning is also associated with a decrease in the gray matter of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain linked to episodic memory and orientation. A low amount of gray matter in this brain area is related to Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In looking at the effects of action video games on the hippocampus, Dr. West and his colleagues also took into account any links with the striatum, which is a brain area that receives signals from the hippocampus.

The striatum also contains the caudate nucleus, which plays an important role in the formation of habits and procedural memory – that is, the kind of memory that we rely on to know how to walk, swim, or ride a bicycle.

According to existing research, Dr. West and his colleagues note that “the caudate nucleus shares an inverse relationship with the hippocampus.”

This means that if we rely too much on habit and procedural memory, we end up underusing the active learning capacities promoted by the hippocampus. This may cause the hippocampus to atrophy, leading to an unhealthy brain structure overall.

That’s why we decided to do a full neuro-imaging study, […] and what we saw was less gray matter in the hippocampus of habitual players. We then followed that up with two longitudinal studies to establish causality, and we found that it was indeed the gaming that led to changes in the brain.”

Dr. Gregory West

Fifty-one male and 46 female gamers were recruited for the current research and were eventually tasked with playing either action video games – which, in this case, were shooter games such as Call of Duty – or 3-D platform video games from the Super Mario series.

Response learners lose gray matter

The participants were first tested to see whether they were “spatial learners,” relying on visual clues and landmarks to make their way through a particular environment, or “response learners,” relying on acquired habits to navigate. Spatial learners have a more active hippocampus, whereas response learners tend to underuse it.

For this test, the researchers developed a “4 on 8 virtual maze,” which is a task that encourages the players to come up with a navigational strategy that links to either the hippocampus or the caudate nucleus.

“The virtual reality task consists of an eight-arm radial maze situated in an enriched environment. The environment contains both distal [far from the player’s perspective] and proximal [close to the player’s perspective] landmarks: two trees, a rock, and mountains,” the researchers explain.

After establishing which players were response learners and which were spatial learners, the researchers asked them to play the action and 3-D platform video games.

It was found that the same amount of time (90 hours) dedicated to gaming had different effects depending on the kind of game that was involved: action games led to hippocampal atrophy, whereas platform games increased the volume of gray matter.

The researchers believe that response learners might be able to increase their gray matter volume by “be[ing] encouraged to use spatial strategies” instead. Dr. West and his colleagues also suggest that game developers might even be able to prevent action games from leading to the atrophy of the hippocampus by changing the games’ design.

Action games, they say, “[…] often include an overlaid head-up display which displays an in-game GPS [global positioning system] to direct players to their next location or event,” discouraging players from actively employing spatial strategies. Without this, the researchers suggest, the games’ negative effect on the brain might be avoided.

Considering these findings, Dr. West and his colleagues advise caution in “prescribing” action video games to young players, as they might end up doing more harm than good. However, the researchers suggest that game training must be adapted to the necessities of the individuals involved.

“For example,” they say, “patients with Parkinson’s disease who also present with dementia and patients with Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder” should not be exposed to action video games, as they already have lower volumes of gray matter.

“In contrast,” the researchers add, “patients with Parkinson’s disease without dementia do display dysfunction in the basal ganglia, and may benefit from action video game training.”

How video games affect the brain

Video gaming is clearly a popular form of entertainment, with video gamers collectively spending 3 billion hours per week in front of their screens. Due to their widespread use, scientists have researched how video games affect the brain and behavior. Are these effects positive or negative? We examine the evidence.
man playing games on a computerThere is increasing research focused on the impact of video gaming on the brain.

At a glance, more than 150 million people in the United States play video games regularly, or for at least 3 hours per week. The average American gamer is a 35-year-old adult, with 72 percent of gamers aged 18 or older. For video game use by children, most parents – 71 percent – indicate that video games have a positive influence on their child’s life.

Video game sales continue to increase year on year. In 2016, the video game industry sold more than 24.5 billion games – up from 23.2 billion in 2015, and 21.4 billion in 2014.

The top three best-selling video games of 2016 were Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, and Grand Theft Auto V. These games fall into the first-person shooter or action-adventure genres – the top two genres, accounting for 27.5 percent and 22.5 percent of sales, respectively. First-person shooter and action genres often stand accused of stirring aggression and causing violence and addiction.

Decades of research examining video gaming and violence have failed to reach consensus among scientists. Scientists have been unable to find a causal link between playing video games and acts of violence in the real world.

Video games and brain changes

A growing body of evidence, however, shows that video gaming can affect the brain and, furthermore, cause changes in many regions of the brain.

game addict laying on the floorGame addicts have functional and structural changes in the neural reward system.

Scientists have recently collected and summarized results from 116 scientific studies to determine how video games can influence our brains and behaviors. The findings of their review were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

“Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic,” says Marc Palaus, first author of the review.

By looking at all research to date, Palaus and team aimed to observe whether any trends had emerged with regard to how video games impact the structure and activity of the brain. A total of 22 of the reviewed studies explored structural changes in the brain and 100 studies analyzed changes in brain functionality and behavior.

Results of the studies indicate that playing video games not only changes how our brains perform but also their structure.

For example, video game use is known to affect attention. The studies included in the review show that video game players display improvements in several types of attention, including sustained attention and selective attention. Furthermore, the regions of the brain that play a role in attention are more efficient in gamers compared with non-gamers, and they require less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.

Evidence also demonstrates that playing video games increases the size and competence of parts of the brain responsible for visuospatial skills – a person’s ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. In long-term gamers and individuals who had volunteered to follow a video game training plan, the right hippocampus was enlarged.

Researchers have discovered that video gaming can be addictive – a phenomenon known as “Internet gaming disorder.”

In gaming addicts, there are functional and structural alterations in the neural reward system – a group of structures associated with feeling pleasure, learning, and motivation. Exposing video game addicts to game-related cues that cause cravings, and monitoring their brain responses, highlighted these changes – changes that are also seen in other addictive disorders.

“We focused on how the brain reacts to video game exposure, but these effects do not always translate to real-life changes,” notes Palaus. The research into the effects of video gaming is still in its infancy and scientists are still scrutinizing what aspects of gaming impact what brain regions and how.

“It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity,” Palaus continues.

Are brain-training games beneficial?

A team of researchers from the Florida State University has stated that people should be skeptical of adverts that promote an increase in the performance of the brain that results from brain training games. They have said that science does not support these claims.

older adults playing video gamesPlaying brain-training games did not improve cognitive abilities in older adults.

“Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way,” says Wally Boot, associate professor of psychology, an expert on age-related cognitive decline.

People are increasingly under the impression that brain-training apps will safeguard them against memory loss or cognitive disorders.

Researchers tested whether playing brain-training games enhanced the working memory of players and thus improved other cognitive abilities, including reasoning, memory, and processing speed – a process scientists call “far transfer.” However, this was not the case.

“It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits,” explains Neil Charness, professor of psychology and a leading authority on aging and cognition.

“But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors, in particular, should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no,” he adds.

Charness points out that if your goal is to improve cognitive function, then aerobic exercise may help. Some research has found that aerobic activity rather than mental activity enhances the brain.

Video games boost memory

In contrast, a study published in Nature found that through the use of a specially designed 3-D video game, cognitive performance could be improved in older adults and some of the adverse effects on the brain associated with aging, reversed.

seniors playing video gamesA small amount of brain training can reverse age-related brain decline.

Scientists at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) clarify that this provides a measure of scientific support in the brain fitness arena – criticized for lacking evidence – that brain training can stimulate meaningful and lasting changes.

After 12 hours of training over the period of a month, study participants aged between 60 to 85 years improved performance on the game that surpassed that of individuals in their 20s playing the game for the first time. Moreover, two other significant cognitive areas were improved: working memory and sustained attention. These skills were maintained 6 months after completion of their training.

“The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is,” says Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Ph.D., UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center. Dr. Gazzaley notes that it is encouraging that even a little brain training can reverse some of the brain decline that occurs with age.

A recent study conducted by neurobiologists at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) found that playing 3-D video games could also boost the formation of memories. Participants were allocated to either a group that played video games with a 2-D environment or a 3-D environment. After playing the games for 30 minutes per day for 2 weeks, the students were given memory tests that engaged the brain’s hippocampus.

The participants in the 3-D group significantly improved their memory test scores compared with the 2-D group. The 3-D group’s memory performance increased by 12 percent – the same amount that memory performance usually declines by between 45 and 70 years of age.

“First, the 3-D games have a few things the 2-D ones do not,” says Craig Stark, of UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. “They’ve got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second, they’re much more complex, with a lot more information to learn. Either way, we know this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but requires the hippocampus.”

Strategy video games, in particular, have shown promise in improving brain function among older adults and may provide protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“If the target is to improve older adults’ cognitive control, reasoning, and higher-order cognitive skills, and stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as long as possible, then maybe strategy games are the way to go,” informs Chandramallika Basak, assistant professor at the Center for Vital Longevity and School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Basak, like Charness, agrees that cognitive training should come second to physical activity programs when it comes to improving cognitive function. Physical fitness programs have been linked with positive effects on cognition and brain function and structure.

There is evidence to suggest that video games may be a viable treatment for depression and improve memory and mood in adults with mild cognitive impairment.

The effect of video games on the brain is a new area of research that will continue to be explored. We may just be scraping the surface of the potential that video games could present in enhancing cognitive ability and preventing cognitive disorders.

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